The Department for Education in the UK has recently published new statutory guidance relating to requirements for web filtering in schools.

From September 5, 2016, all schools have a duty to conduct a risk assessment and, where appropriate, implement a web filtering solution to prevent children from being exposed to illegal or harmful online material.

The “guidance” from the Department for Education is mandatory and educational institutions have to comply with the requirements for web filtering in schools, unless it can be shown they are not necessary in the circumstances, or that safeguards providing adequate protection already exist.

Key Issues Covered by the Guidance

The requirements for web filtering in schools form one of three risk categories being addressed by the guidance – the other two being the prevention of harmful online interaction, and online conduct that increases the likelihood of harm.

The Department for Education makes it clear that the guidance refers not only to school computer networks, but also access to mobile technology, and stipulates that policies should be introduced regarding mobile usage on school premises.

It is also a requirement that teaching staff undergo safeguarding training to monitor use of the Internet, so that they can effectively identify children at risk and intervene or escalate where appropriate. Children should also be educated about online safety.

What are the Requirements for Web Filtering in Schools?

While the guidance outlines the requirements for web filtering in schools, it falls short of detailing specific types of website content that should be blocked. Instead it defers to the recommendations made by the UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC).

The UKSIC offers guides for appropriate filtering and appropriate monitoring with the caveat that what constitutes inappropriate website content for one age group, may not necessarily apply to all age groups.

It suggests any web filtering solution that is implemented should have reporting mechanisms to provide historical information on the websites visited by users, and the ability to report inappropriate content for access or blocking.

While not an exhaustive list of all types of inappropriate website content, the UKSIC recommends schools and other educational establishments ensure the following categories are blocked by their chosen web filtering solution:

  • Websites that promote discrimination on the grounds of age, sex, race, and religion.
  • Websites displaying or promoting the use of narcotics and/or substance abuse.
  • Websites promoting acts of terrorism or terrorist ideologies, intolerance, or violence.
  • Websites or tools that enable anonymous browsing of the Internet.
  • Sites hosting malicious content.
  • Webpages promoting hacking or the compromising of computer systems.
  • Webpages containing pornographic images or displaying sexual acts.
  • Websites promoting or enabling copyright violations or Internet piracy.
  • Sites displaying or promoting acts of violence with intent to harm, maim, or kill.
  • Sites promoting self-harm or displaying acts of self-harm, including eating disorders and suicide.

Features of Web Filtering Solutions for Schools

In addition to blocking categories of web content, a suitable web filtering solution for schools should include the ability to:

  • Identify individual users, the sites visited and the searches performed.
  • Make changes to filtering parameters at school level as appropriate
  • Block access to restricted content from mobile devices
  • Provide multi-lingual filtering support.
  • Generate reports allowing administrators to view accessed content.
  • Filter content without the need to download software onto devices.

It is inevitable that some legitimate web pages may be blocked by a web filtering solution. It is therefore important that a system is established that enables users to report when access is blocked to legitimate web pages so that the web pages can be added to a safe list or whitelist.

Web Filtering for Schools No Substitute for Supervision

The UKSIC points out that even the most robust Internet content filtering solutions are not infallible. It is not possible for any solution to be 100% effective, 100% of the time. The UKSIC recommends the requirements for web filtering in schools are supported with “good teaching and learning practice and effective supervision.”

While the blocking of Internet content is important to prevent children from coming to harm, schools should take care not to overblock website content. The UKSIC advises schools, colleges, and other educational establishments to take care web filtering does not unreasonably restrict access to valuable website content.

Full details of the requirements for web filtering for schools can be found within Annex C of Keeping Children Safe in Education.